Tag: spending

Philly Schools—Is Money Really the Problem?

House majority leader Eric Cantor is in Philadelphia today to pick up Attorney General Eric Holder’s gauntlet. Holder’s DOJ has filed suit to shut down a Louisiana school voucher program that serves an overwhelmingly African American population, on the grounds that… it’s bad for African Americans. Cantor vows to fight the DOJ if Holder doesn’t drop the suit, and he’s delivering his message at a Philly charter school serving mostly African American kids—one that has about six times as many applicants as it has places.

Apart from its proximity to DC, Philly might seem an odd location for Cantor’s presser, but the city of brotherly love is going through an educational drama of its own. The Philadelphia School District has had budget problems for years. It’s seen horrendous violence, plummeting enrollment, and commensurate staff layoffs and school closures. Most media accounts bewail lack of funding as the key problem. Salon.com recently ran a story with the subhead: “Pennsylvania’s right-wing governor drains public schools of basic funds.” CBSNews laments “the same old problem: not enough money.”

What those and all other Philly school district stories I’ve seen have in common is that they fail to say how much the district actually spends per pupil. Not having attended journalism school, I missed whatever class teaches education reporters to omit the single most important fact in their stories, so allow me try to fill in the blank.

A quick Google search reveals that Philly’s 2013-14 budget is $3.03 billion (p. 50), of which $862 million is for charter schools. The district serves 136,000 students in its regular public schools and another 63,000 in charter schools. So the regular public schools, the ones that are being “systematically murdered” by budget cuts, spend $15,941 per pupil. That’s about $3,000 more than the national average. It’s also $1,600 more than the day tuition at Temple University. The city’s charter schools receive about $2,300 less than the regular public schools.

That’s not to say that the district’s classrooms are fully stocked with supplies or that the city’s best teachers are paid what they’re worth. What it does suggest is that the cause of those problems may have less to do with the amount of funding available than with the way it is allocated. After all, Washington, DC spends around $29,000 per pupildouble what Philly does—and it performs worse in both reading and math by the 8th grade.

School Spending Transparency Favors School Choice

In a post at RedefinED Online calling for more sunshine on the Sunshine State’s public school spending data, I discussed the broader implications of financial transparency:

Awareness about public school spending has implications for the public discourse over public education. A Harvard University survey shows the public vastly underestimates how much public schools cost, which affects the public’s spending preferences. When citizens are informed about the true cost of public education, they are significantly less likely to support increasing spending.

Likewise, the widespread misperception that private schools cost more per pupil than public schools likely affects the public’s support for school choice programs. A greater awareness that school choice programs can save money would likely translate into greater public support for school choice. Indeed, Florida policymakers have wisely sought to demonstrate exactly that. The Florida Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) estimated Florida taxpayers save $1.44 for every dollar of revenue reduced by the state’s scholarship tax credit program.

The central purpose of school choice is to provide an education that best meets the needs of individual children, especially to those whose choices are limited. Diverse children require a diverse array of learning options. However, as with any public policy, cost is a factor. Research has shown that when the fiscal benefits of school choice are emphasized, support for choice increases. 

The widespread misperception that school choice programs would cost more than the status quo is therefore both a problem and an opportunity. The misperception currently dampens support for school choice, but it also means that support would increase with greater awareness about the true cost of public schools and the savings that school choice programs provide to taxpayers. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant and it is also necessary for growth. Those who want to see school choice programs grow should advocate for greater transparency in education spending.

 

Will the Administration Make a Run at Transparency?

Last fall, I reported that the Obama administration lagged the House of Representatives on transparency. The conclusion was driven by a study of the quality of data publication regarding key elements of budgeting, appropriating, spending, and the legislative process. (Along with monitoring progress in these area, we’ve been producing data to show that it can be done, to produce a cadre of users, and to simply deliver government transparency at a less plodding pace.)

There are signs that the administration may make a run at improving its transparency record. Buried deep in the FY 2014 budget justification for the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service, it says that funds will support “government-wide data standardization efforts to increase accuracy and transparency of Federal financial reporting.” That means the public may get better access to where the money goes – outlays – in formats that permit computer-aided oversight.

In parallel, a Performance.gov effort called the Federal Program Inventory says that, in May of 2014, it will publish a Unique Federal Program Inventory number (pg. 4-5) for each federal program, along with agency IDs and bureau IDs. This may be the machine-readable federal government organization chart whose non-existence I have lamented for some time.

If this sounds jargon-y, you’re normal. Think of federal spending as happening on a remote jungle island, where all the inhabitants speak their own language. On Federal Spending Island, no visitor from the U.S. mainland can understand where things are there, or who is saying what to whom.

True machine-readable data will turn Federal Spending Island into a place where English is spoken, or at least a some kind of Federal Spending-English dialect that makes the movement of our tax dollars easier to track.

How Transparent Is Your State’s Department of Education?

When a business applies for a loan, the bank needs to know the business’s operating expenses and its overhead to make an informed decision about whether to grant the loan. A business that acquired a loan while understating or hiding some categories of its expenses would be in serious trouble. However, the government seems to operate by a different set of rules.

A new report from the Cato Institute, “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?“ finds that state departments of education routinely understate the cost of public schools and often fail to report key spending categories. Meanwhile, a Harvard survey finds that the public thinks that public schools cost half as much as they really do. Are state education departments contributing to the public’s vast underestimation of the true cost of public education?

Find out more at Education Next.

The Data Says Open-Ended Spending Bills Are Common

Let’s start with a little civics lesson: Congress spends money through a two-step process. Spending must first be authorized. That’s called an authorization of appropriations. Then, in a second step, the money is actually appropriated. There are exceptions, but on the whole this is how spending works. Authorizing bills go to authorizing committees, and appropriations bills go to the appropriations committees. When both do their thing, money gets spent. It’s good to keep an eye on.

In our project to generate better data about what Congress is doing, we’ve “marked up” over 80 percent of the bills introduced in Congress so far this year, adding richer and more revealing computer-readable data to the text of bills. That’s over 4,000 of the 5,000-plus bills introduced in Congress since January. We’re to the point where we can learn things.

I was surprised to find just how often the bills that authorize spending leave the amounts open-ended. A recent sample of the bills we’ve marked up includes 428 bills with authorizations of appropriations. Just over 40 percent of them place no limit on how much money will be spent. They say things like “such sums as may be necessary,” leaving entirely to the appropriations committees how much to spend. (There are many bills with both defined amounts and open-ended spending. To be conservative, we treated any bill having limited spending as not unlimited.)

This leads me to two related conclusions. First, authorizations of appropriations being a potential brake on spending, this surprisingly common practice is part of Congress’s fiscal indiscipline. The members of Congress and Senators who introduce such bills and vote to authorize open-ended spending are avoiding their responsibility to determine how much a program is worth to us, the taxpayers.

President’s Budget Lacks Seriousness, Vision

The measure of our seriousness in helping children learn is not simply the number of dollars we spend, but rather the care and thought we invest in allocating them, and our openness to changing course when the evidence demands it. The education provisions of the President’s budget, released today, lack both seriousness and vision.

The FY 2014 budget overview emphasizes three educational initiatives: preschool for all, STEM and innovation, and school infrastructure.

As foreshadowed in his State of the Union address, President Obama proposes to federally subsidize statewide preschool programs. This approach seems designed to deal with the mounting evidence that the federal government’s own preschool programs, Head Start and Early Head Start, have essentially no lasting benefits. Though candidate Obama once said he would terminate ineffective programs, his latest budget retains them both, and actually grows Early Head Start. Additionally, the new budget would subsidize PreK programs like those in Oklahoma and Georgia that advocates have long touted as “high quality.” The evidence on those programs is, however, rather mixed. Relative to the national average, Oklahoma has seen modest declines on the 4th grade NAEP tests while Georgia has seen modest gains—and the declines are larger than the gains. A broader review of the evidence by early education expert Russ Whitehurst of Brookings finds the same lackluster results overall. 

Not only are these statewide programs failing to show a pattern of lasting and substantial benefits thus far, the addition of federal subsidies will likely impede efforts to improve them. Federal education dollars at the pre-college level always come with strings attached—strings that accumulate over time. That is likely to exert a homogenizing pressure on state pre-K offerings, eliminating variation and thereby preventing us from learning which approaches are effective and which are not.

On STEM, the President is keen to fund the hiring of 100,000 new Science, Technology, and Math teachers. But America does not have a teacher quantity problem, we have a teacher effectiveness problem. Over the past 40 years, we’ve grown the number of public school employees 11 times faster than enrollment [i.e., we’ve doubled the number of staff to serve only 8.5 percent more students]. This has added $200 billion annually to the cost of American public schooling, and two million of the three million new hires were instructional staff, so it’s not simply a problem of bureaucratic bloat. And yet, despite all those new teachers and teachers’ aides, achievement at the end of high school is largely flat as are real graduation rates.

In other words, our public schools have shown themselves incapable of harnessing the talents of these millions of additional educators. The solution is not to hire yet more teachers into that system, it is to liberalize the education sector, bringing it back within the free enterprise system. Only when schools have both the freedoms and incentives to make the most of their teaching staffs, will we see educators’ talents marshaled effectively.

Finally, President Obama’s proposed new infrastructure spending focuses only on the symptom (crumbling school facilities) and ignores its cause (mismanagement). I’ve analyzed school survey data on the condition of facilities and found that public schools are in a much worse state of repair than private schools, despite the fact that private schools spend far less per pupil, on average. The question is WHY are public schools in a worse state of repair, given that they spend more? According to a federal government report, it’s because districts repeatedly defer necessary routine maintenance. These deferrals increase the cost of maintaining school facilities and accelerate the deterioration of buildings and equipment. In other words, they postpone the ounce of prevention until the pound of cure becomes unavoidable—and they do this because they don’t have to pay for the cure. Once again, bringing schools back within the free enterprise system would provide administrators with the incentives to maintain their facilities so as to avoid the financial hit of costly repairs and replacements—a hit that they can now pass on to taxpayers at no cost to themselves or their careers.

Regrettably, seeing the root causes underlying our educational woes is beyond the vision of the present administration.

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